Having worked in front-line selling and sales leadership positions for more than 25 years, I’ve seen sales training programs implemented in a variety of organizations. In years past, it was common for these training programs to follow a well-defined course. Scheduled sales training sessions were held at corporate headquarters on predetermined dates, which grouped hires from several weeks (or even months) in the same training sessions, thereby leaving some new hires with little opportunity to improve their product knowledge and skills over the first few weeks of their employment.
Once the new employees arrived at corporate, they were typically given a product-heavy download of more than a week’s duration on the company’s offerings, competitors, and market – regardless of whether they had worked in the industry for 10 years or were completely new to it. Following this intensive introduction to its products and services, the new sales reps were sent into the field to sell. Period. Training over.
In some ways, this training method is effective. It ensures that new hires are comfortable with the products and the industry, and it provides all reps with the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the corporate message and a primer on the competition. On the other hand, this method also is riddled with inefficiencies. Why not use the lag time when new hires are waiting to visit corporate in productive ways? Why force reps who are familiar with an industry to sit through the basics along with those who know little to nothing about it? Why not go beyond product knowledge and expose the new hires to real-life selling situations, or “test drives” – the ultimate and only real way to test their field readiness?
In addition to the problem of inefficiency, there is another issue one can raise with these traditional training methods: Often, new hires leave the corporate training program with the knowledge, but not the skills, they need to match their solutions to customers’ unique business needs and challenges. As a result, these rookie reps are often mentally unprepared to be effective in their first sales meetings because they have not been familiarized with how prospect/customer interactions need to proceed in order to close business. They complain of missing opportunities to upsell, of feeling unfamiliar with the challenges posed by real-life customers, and of being unprepared for potential curveballs thrown at them during the sales process.
Our company provides analytic software-based solutions for workforce-enterprise optimization and security, which makes delivering effective field readiness for new sales reps no easy task. We’re in a complex market with complex solutions – and highly effective competitors. Over the past two years, we’ve worked to devise a sales training program that addresses the above critiques of traditional training programs. By approaching the process in a way that may seem counterintuitive to many reps that are veterans of the sales training process, we are able to improve retention of information and foster better sales skills.
The first improvement to the process we implemented was to tailor our training program to each individual new hire. The day a rep is brought on, his or her manager sits down with the learning team to determine what the specific salesperson’s training program will look like, taking previous experience and levels of expertise and experience into account. By focusing more on the end skill set than on the process that goes into it, we create flexibility for our new team members to “learn” only the skills and knowledge needed to make them immediately successful in their new role.
In order to make these individualized learning programs effective, we have taken the bulk of the product and industry training out of the classroom, providing online lessons that can be taken from anywhere, anytime. Self-paced modules are intermixed with live, online sessions with experts, presenting the opportunity to ask targeted questions and receive the benefit of learning from field experience. The e-learning initiative has the additional benefit of allowing sales reps to begin training the day they are hired, sometimes even before their official start date. By transitioning training to an online activity, we eliminate unnecessary training assigned to experienced hires and wasteful lag time between a rep’s hiring and his or her initial visit to corporate. Each new hire receives a personalized training path, based on both formal (online, subject specific) and informal (conversational, interview format) assessments.
By covering the majority of the product and company knowledge within the online segment of the new hire sales training, we’re able to focus all of the face-to-face time on the number-one potential success killer: a sales rep’s tendency to feel unprepared for his or her first sales visits as a representative of a new company and new solutions.
Now, during a new hire’s trip to corporate, we engage in what we call ”Test Drives” – real-life exercises in which new sales reps form teams to participate in simulated selling scenarios. The unique part of this program is that the scenarios are taken from actual customer situations – not all of which resulted in a sale. The reps-in-training are not only given the initial setup of the situation, they also are thrown the same last-minute curveballs, as experienced by the reps that participated in the actual successful or unsuccessful sales process with the real-life prospect or customer.
In the end, new hires present their sales “pitch” to a group of top sales reps or members of the senior leadership team who play “customer.” After each Test Drive, the teams of new reps receive valuable feedback about what they did well, what they can improve, and opportunities they might have missed. As the sessions progress, each Test Drive becomes more complex, building on the successes and shortcomings over the course of two days. Observers can actually “see and feel” the skill development and confidence growth within the participants.
The Test Drives have received rave reviews across the board, from both veteran hires and those new to the industry. Just as important, however, have been the measurable improvements in the performance of new hires. Since the current training program was implemented, time to self sufficiency in the field has been reduced by 40 percent, and time to full-quota production has been cut in half.
The program also produced some unexpected results. For instance, it has become a recruitment tool for our sales managers, who tout the training program as one of the benefits of joining our team. Within the sales force and the leadership team, sharing experiences from Test Drives has become a positive source of bonding among colleagues. The experience also has created a culture of expecting to “debrief” after all sales calls, looking to learn from what went well and what needs improvement in the future. In fact, Test Drives are now an integral part of every year’s Sales Kick-off event, with veteran team members requesting to participate and continue their mastery of challenging selling situations.
With these results in mind, is it time to re-think the goals of your sales training program and evaluate how your current approach is helping you to meet these goals? The method that we have successfully applied in our organization – as both Verint Systems today, and Witness Systems prior to merging with Verint earlier this year – might not be right for your organization, but perhaps there is a more efficient or effective manner for you to go about your training process to meet the unique needs of your enterprise. The key is to focus on the final skill set rather than the process even if it might, at first, seem counterintuitive.